Last week was slow in terms of work, still working on arrangements for site visits, but the rest of my time here looks like it will be packed with traveling. So by the time Thursday rolled around and my new Bestie, Rachael, invited me to her village for the weekend, I didn’t hesitate to back my bags and head off. We took public transportation (minibuses here are about the size of vans back home and just cram people, standing and sitting) from Lilongwe North for about 30 minutes until we were on a highway. From there we hitched a ride the rest of the way North on the paved highway. It’s very common to hitch rides here since minibuses are not reliable or on a schedule and for asungus (foreigners) living here as volunteers it’s just not in the budget to do otherwise. Rachael tells me her average wait time is about 10 minutes to be picked up and it’s generally safe to do so. We weren’t having much luck after 15 minutes so I decided to step back and leave her to herself. As soon as I stepped away someone stopped and we had a ride! The gentleman was a local post-doc commuting for work and dropped us about another hour North where we needed to head west on dirt roads. We took a 45-minute minibus ride West to the first main village where there was electricity and impressive school buildings. There were two other peace corps volunteers stationed here as teachers but Rachael’s village was another 30 minute bicycle ride deeper west. She leaves her bicycle at her friend’s house in the first village when she heads to town. I borrowed a bicycle and was quickly reminded how long it has been since I’ve been on one. It was not an easy road navigating the uneven surface, cows, goats, and children but we made it, Rachael not phased at all, and me, well, I was soaked through with sweat.
The weekend was a blur of ceremonies, cooking, cleaning, and preparing exams for the finals this upcoming week for Rachael’s’ students. I helped her write her physical sciences exams for form 1 (freshman) and form 3 (juniors). I was amazed at how advanced the curriculum was. Especially after seeing Rachael’s village and the stark contrast to the first village we passed through. The conditions were much worse, in that her buildings were in serious disrepair with no electricity. Classrooms consisted of a chalkboard and some old desks and chairs. Windows were hanging off their hinges or missing, paint was faded and covered with dirt - it was not an inviting atmosphere. Writing the exams, I learned that only about 38% would pass and most students would graduate only to cycle back through junior and senior year. The national standardized curriculum was teaching these students many science topics I didn’t learn until college and I wasn’t sure if they had the foundation to be even attempting this material.
Graduation took place Friday and the ceremony was great fun to attend. One thing I noticed is the informality and festive environment. I found myself wishing American ceremonies were more like they are here. For example, the graduates led themselves in a procession dancing and singing their way to their seats. They proceeded to make their own caps using paper and markers and they folded them on their heads. I was ecstatic to see that when each graduate was called up for the certificate, they danced the whole way from their seats to the stage and across as they shook hands with the head mistress and superintendent and back to their seats. There was music the whole time coming from either singing or the boom box in the corner hooked up to a liquid cell battery (like the ones I’ve seen used on boats). We all shared in a feast together and then had a picture session afterward. In many ways it was similar to what I’ve seen back home with the addition of festive, free expression in the form of song and dance. I suppose it’s not too different than nowadays when you see graduates be called across the stage and have some funny pose or face to make as they make their walk. I love listening to the singing especially, I was taken aback by the harmony and found it resonated deep inside me.
I can’t emphasize enough how good the food has been here. Arriving expecting very little, I’ve had meals that rival the best I’ve ever had. I finally was able to enjoy the local food table, Nsima, which is a maize product, their chief crop in Malawi. The corn kernels are collected and dried, ground into a find powder, and used as flour in mixing with water over a fire until a thick, mashed potato-like mixture is formed. It is served with side dishes such as beans. I found it to be quite good actually but I could see how someone might grow tired of it over time. We cooked our meals in a small cooking house in the back yard of Rachael’s home. We made eggs and vegetables over a fire and Rachael cleverly baked a cake using a makeshift oven, placing the baking pan inside a pot lined with sand, over a fire with another fire on top of the lid. I was amazed how well it turned out and we served it as the dessert for the graduation ceremony. I wondered if anyone there had ever even tasted caked before.
The next day we were invited to a Catholic ceremony for a local young lady who was becoming a nun and assigned to work in Mozambique. This ceremony required an hour-long bike taxi even deeper into the bush. Another Malawi experience for me so I was excited! I was pessimistic as I straddled the back of the bicycle sitting on the same racks we have back home for attaching equipment to. Not very comfortable to say the least but I was distracted by my constantly battered pessimism as the man driving proceeded up impressively steep hills without stopping. He weighed much less than I did and I knew I didn’t have a hope of switching places and carrying him. I couldn’t believe we made it there and I couldn’t see a drop of sweat on him or a heavy breath. We were treated as special guests and given an insane amount of food. I felt bad eating so much in such an isolated village but I knew better than to challenge custom. Even offering money was not acceptable. I tried to stifle my laughs when one of the shop-owners was served his food first and it arrived as the largest pile of food on a plate I’ve ever seen in my life.
I had an amazing experience and was so glad I was able to spend some time in a village and see how most of the population lives in Malawi. I was amazed at the home Rachael has built for herself and the love the community has for her. Throughout the day if we were home, inevitably cooking, cleaning, or preparing teaching materials, students of all ages would knock on the door to ask a question, request a game to play on her front step, deliver an essay, or to ask who the tall, handsome man was staying with her. Alright, maybe they didn’t use those words specifically but I’m pretty sure they were thinking them. (I couldn’t say dark since I’m pretty light compared to my onlookers!) Using the chambuzi (out house) was an experience too. Not that I haven’t used a hole in the ground before but I was curious how people used such small holes. You had to have some seriously good aim and do some acrobatics to not make a mess. Needless to say, I quietly snuck back into the house and didn’t mention what happened to Rachael.
I’ve been tempted to think and say how well the Malawian villagers live despite what they have or what they lack but the truth as it has become apparent to me is that they have, in many cases, much more than we do in America. What they lack on the surface in material items it often the focus but I found myself envious of the wealth of life they had. Their tight community and family connections, their faith in God, and their celebration of life in song and dance was inspiring to say the least. Of course finding the balance with that way of life and introduction to technology and advanced systems (such as healthcare and education) is the challenge. Is it possible to have it all and not make sacrifices? Is it inevitable that we grow more distance from each other, from nature as we introduce more technology into our lives? Again, as the hopeless optimist I don’t think it has to be that way and in America. We have a path of healing and growth ahead of us.